Getting to the Bottom of it: My love affair with Pie Crust
What was the big deal about making my own crusts? I was not afraid of baking bread, cakes or even coffeecakes.... but PIE? Something was wrong and I was determined to get to the bottom of this.
The pies I had tried to bake recently were all apple; all semi-disasters. The first: burnt edges, the second: ultra thick edges; and the third; a sunken heap of burnt and ultra thick edges. I was dreaming of a flaky, tender buttery crust. Every time I looked up' PIES' in one my favorite cookbooks, my eyes glazed over and my palms got sweaty. In Julia Childs’ Classic book; Mastering The Art OF French Cooking, the pie pastry instructions were 21 pages long. I envied my friends when they told me about their mothers who just seemed to make the classics magically appear for birthdays and holidays: cherry, apple, pumpkin and lemon meringue.
The Cooking magazine covers were emblazoned with glossy and glamorous photo shoots of summer fruits...the plumpest and the juiciest; the biggest and the boldest all guaranteed to tantalize and titillate. I closed my eyes and imagined myself wowing my dinner guests with one of my homemade pies..I heard myself saying; “ Sure, it would be no trouble at all. Let me just whip one right up...out of the oven and onto your plate
Just like we learned in grade school; 'roll it and pat it and mark it with a P......'
I began my pie quest with asking a few of my favorite pastry chefs their secrets Their answer: “butter, butter and more butter.” One chef responded slightly differently: “chilled butter.”The grandmothers I knew all said: “Watch me!” adding somewhat encouragingly; ‘ there was really nothing to it.’
My own VIENNESE grandmother did make strudles and tortes but she rather preferred to take me on an outing to her favorite pastry shop in Queens, New York. Her mantra was always; “Just eat a little protein before something sweet” I remember her saying that my bones needed some lean roast beef to grow big and strong. She always had lifesavers in her purse and believed that sucking on one was a great “pick me up” In fact, she seemed to always be reaching for something in that purse; something reassuring, maybe a hanky, a hairpin, lipstick, sweet n low sugars or an amazing assortment of coffee or chocolate hard candies
I have never forgotten though the day she made apple strudle.. She became very serious and quiet. She mounded the flour on a marble slab, cracked and separated yolks from whites, poured the yolks slowly into the deep pocket of flour ...her bracelets jangling loudly as she worked to form a smooth dough. ...She let me feel the dough for a quick second when she thought it was, as she said “getting there.” When the dough was ready, she wrapped it in waxed paper and put it in the fridge. She said the dough needed to “rest.” After what seemed like an eternity, she rolled the chilled dough into a square, then draped, stretched and pulled , letting this ever thinner elastic sheath hang over her knuckles until she formed a huge rectangular piece of dough/ cloth. Lastly, she filled it with sliced apples, cinnamon, sugar, lemon rind, buttered bread crumbs, and, with a few quick flicks of the underlying cloth, turned it into a 4 foot long roll!! I was forever mesmerized.
Before embarking on my perilous pie crust mastering mission once again, I spent a few weeks taking refuge in bakers catalogs. I gazed longingly at the indispensable products...the magic links connecting me to crust perfection: The burlap pastry cloth! (absorbs excess flour) the pastry blender (cuts butter into flour into the perfect pea-shaped sizes) pie weights(necklace of metal beads to keep crust from sinking) a PIE BIRD ( allows steam to escape underneath a top crust to prevent the horror of SPILLAGE!!
After about the 10th time of reading the directions for pie crust in The Complete Book of Pastry, I was back at the pastry board (or if you are really lucky..a marble board) and ready to play dough.”
As I started to mix the butter into the flour, the visions of sugar plums and sour cherries long gone from my mind, I was now working under very strict commands: "KEEP IT MOIST, BUT NOT WET!" WORK DOUGH QUICKLY, THEN RELAX IT!" "SQUEEZE IT DON'T KNEAD IT” as I plunged deeper into unknown territory.
“Next...let the squeeze-shaped dough rest in the refrigerator for 4 to 24 hours...the gluten sheets will relax and mellowing enzymes will help absorb the moisture fully."
TRANSLATION: AVOID SHRINKAGE! My heart pounding and my hands flour-soaked, I read on;
“ The temperature will protect these tiny pea sized particles of butter and flour . In the oven each flour-coated bit of moist fat will create small burst of steam to expand and flavor the dough and provide flakiness.”
TRANSLATION: KEEP DOUGH COOL AT ALL TIMES!
I needed to get my hands off this dough as fast as possible...while at the same time coax it into a ball and get it into the fridge. All my natural instincts were being tested and I finally realized I had been giving this creature far too much attention. Little did I know that "if you activate the proteins in the gluten they will bind together, get trapped.
TRANSLATION: YOU DON'T WANT A TOUGH DOUGH!
I invested in a marble board on which to roll out the dough and then fit it into a pie plate. I had no idea 1/4 inch thick is so thin.
"marble conducts heat away from objects twenty times better than plastic or burlap cloth helping the dough to stay cool.
I fold the dough in half and spread it into a pie plate leaving a ½ inch overhang which I use to make some sort of crimping design for the edges of this dough. I grab all the reenforcements, the foil-filled beans and the pie weights, to keep this dough from toppling over. I partially bake the crust to "set" it in its proper position,
When its time to crack open the oven door for a peek I see it...MY CRUST... standing straight and firm and slightly golden:
“Take it out now, I shout aloud to myself...”Take it out Now..
And I do and the ordeal is done.. Yes, for that moment when the fork pierces that pastry when it moves through the filling to make the first cut. You can feel the dough give just a little...still strong but flaky..so rich yet tender This was one fear well worth conquering any old way you slice it!
anina marcus 2008